Friday, April 29, 2011

John's Playoff Picks - The Rest of the Way

Some people, although I am not one, swear that more alcohol in the morning after a hard night's boozing will make you feel better. Well, in this case, it is Pens and the hockey hangover that always comes with playoff defeat and I am rallying in the aftermath with the rest of my playoff picks.
With that being said, let me self-promote: Maggie the Monkey (who I think is dead anyhow?) eat your heart out. How 'bout some respect!
I nailed the West. Two series dead on (Van in 7, Nsh in 6) and nearly got the Det sweep right. The east, I nailed two more (Bos in 7, Was in 5) and lost two...but lets face facts, I was one goal away from nailing the Sabres series in 6 and underestimated Tampa's resolve and got biased about Pens pop-gun offense. I'll take 6 of 8; especially when you came damn close on the other two you missed.
While I annoyingly toot my own horn here, let me go ahead and not only pick round 2, but the rest of the final 8 left standing all the way through. I am doing this for two reasons. First, picking each round gets old after a while and secondly I feel I can ride my hot picking hand (or maybe its just less interest now that the Pens are golfing - I'll let you decide). This is a lot less unstructured than the other picks, I am just ad libbing with this one. Here we go:


Eastern Conference

#1 Washington Capitals v. #5 Tampa Bay Lightning
Just typing it makes me puke in my mouth a bit. A tough series to call here with tons of variables. Is Tampa going to absolutely buy in on defense again? Can Roloson keep this pace up? What kind of goaltending will the Caps get? One thing is for certain, both teams are familiar as division rivals and have potent offensive powder kegs that can blow up at a moment's notice. 
A lot of times when a team plays unreal defense and squeaks out a win in a tight series, such as Tampa has here, they have a tendency to follow up with less vigor because you can only play on adrenaline so long. Montreal did this last year and got steamrolled by Philly after Halak and crew just couldn't overachieve any more. So, the question is, can Tampa and the 1-3-1 (ugh) shut down the potent Caps offense? Specifically, can they shut down Alex Ovechkin? Well, Neil Greenberg in an article on ESPN's Insider website did a great compilation of scoring chances that the Capitals had during the season when Ovechkin's line met up with the top D pair from all 8 playoff teams. Surprisingly, to me, the second most effective pair at limiting Ovechkin's scoring chances (after Sekera/Myers from Buf) were Lundin/Ohlund from Tampa.
Perhaps an even better question in this series is who will be the goaltending hero? Will 41 year old Dwayne Roloson keep up his unrealistic play (although he's made a cup run out of nowhere before)? Which goaltending will show up for the Caps? For my money, I think Tampa is a more complete team right now and a nightmare matchup for the Caps. The Rangers had no offensive pop and still scored on Boudreau's "defensive" system. I feel that Tampa will exploit Washington's weak goaltending, as their top players are capable of filling the net up. Washington's offense will test Tampa's defense and Roloson, but I don't see the Caps being disciplined enough to break the 1-3-1. In sum, Tampa will win because of better coaching, more discipline, and enough goaltending and defense. They still have enough for the Pens/Caps double play; just like the Canadiens last year. Its like a carbon copy.
Prediction: Tampa Bay in 6 games

#2 Philadelphia Flyers v. #3 Boston Bruins
Two division champs square off here in a repeat of last year's monumental Bruin collapse (from 3-0 up) that propelled Philadelphia to within two wins of the Stanley Cup. Much will be made of this, as it should be. I generally underrate the "oooh, they are in their mind" hocus-pocus that media loves; the team that executes better wins if talent is even. I do feel these teams are evenly-matched, but you cannot ignore last year's events. I say this because (1) no lead has been safe in these playoffs, (2) if the Flyers are down a goal (or even 4), you know that last year will be a part of the shit talk at the faceoff circles and benches, especially if Philadelphia has the momentum of a goal that cuts a lead. On the other hand, don't underestimate exorcising demons and what it can mean to a collective group. Consider Vancouver's win the other night. Luongo came out and said it may have even eclipsed winning gold on Canadian soil! I'm sorry, if they lose to Chicago there, thats a franchise changing moment. The win may be too..(more on that later). The Bruins, to a man, surely want to eliminate those demons. Of course, this won't matter to guys like Kaberle and Horton (among others) that are "new blood" in Baaahhhsston. In other words, I think the creeping doubts will be cancelled out by "we need to beat these guys" rah-rah spirit.
All things considered, I think Boston has the edge here for two main reasons; a relatively healthy Chara (assuming the dehydration issues are gone) and Tim Thomas. If playoff hockey is a chessboard, two massively important pieces are your goalie and your top defenseman (or even D pair). At full health, the two towers of power on defense, Chara and Pronger, would cancel each other out like two Queens on the chessboard. However, Pronger is not 100%. Although he is an epic playoff warrior. I do not think he can take the banging and crashing the rugged Bruin forwards will dish out. He is still human. Also, Tim Thomas is somehow still overlooked. Even by me. I really did not fully grasp that the man had the highest save % in NHL history this year (read that again). He is playing well but will not totally shut down Philadelphia. Of course, he will slow them down one heck of a lot more than Bouceightsky (Boucher-Leighton-Bobrovsky-Whoever else) will slow down Boston. The mix of bruising forwards and timely scoring will propel Boston in a series that is not as close as many think it will pan out to be.
Prediction: Boston in 5 games

Western Conference

#1 Vancouver Canucks v. #5 Nashville Predators
Here is the thing about the has the makings of a legendary series, but also characteristics of a classic second-round steamrolling (i.e., Sharks over Wings last yr). Vancouver is all full of spirit after a monster win in game 7 in OT. It had to feel like the weight of the world is off their backs; its the story making headlines all over the league. So the question is (much like SJ dispatching the Wings last year), how hungry are the Canucks after such a satisfying win? Tough to say. This is why this thing could go any which way. Vancouver, clearly the best regular season team, is riding high. They may buzzsaw a Predators team that bleeds goals from 3 scoring lines that are more like second or third lines. Or...they may be so busy patting their own backs that they get knocked right on their faces.
Likewise, Nashville is feeling great about themselves. They brought home the first series win in franchise history. Will they consider it a job well done and something to build on later? Will they keep gaining momentum? Tough to say.
Here is what I think. I think that small market, new kid-on-the-NHL success block Nashville is getting no respect. I think the scene at Bridgestone Arena on Easter was that of an emerging franchise, one ready to put their brand on this year's playoffs and be the story we all remember. Its an intuition over logic. Vancouver is better in so many ways and has the record to show. But, I do think this is a nightmare matchup because the Weber/Suter pair will limit the Sedin twins and make them scared with their physicality. I do think the Canucks secondary scoring will struggle to beat Pekka Rinne. I do think there is something special about Nashville this season. Their espirit de corps and team makeup will beat the Canucks, that will play like a satisfied dog until they realize they are in a series.
Prediction: Nashville in 7
(Quick note: I stopped here and saved before game 1 - but I stick with my guns regardless)

#2 San Jose Sharks v. #3 Detroit Red Wings
The big question that seems to be on people's minds is "can the Sharks dominate Detroit again like last season?". Well, they did take 3 of 4, so logic would dictate they have their number. But lets refocus a second. We have a franchise that has had playoff disappointment run rampant versus one that has constantly achieved to its talent or even overachieved. But of course, the "franchises" aren't playing each other; the players are. However, I feel this fact is overlooked and does seem to matter in certain situations; I guess you can call this an "it" factor that isn't tangible (someone watched too much NFL draft coverage, yikes). Well, Detroit has it with the coach and guys like Lidstrom, Datsyuk, and on and on. 
What seemingly holding Detroit back last season (and maybe now) are two things; team speed overall due to some aging (yes, some guys they have are fast, but top-to-bottom) and an unknown commodity in net. San Jose seems to have a massive edge here with Niemi on paper. He won  a cup and is now on another team threatening to do so again. It seems like a sequel. Well, if you read my last round predictions, you'd see that I feel sequels are rarely as good. This seems to playing out in front of us. Niemi has been shaky at times and yanked twice in clinching games. Is it a hiccup? Is it because he's not playing in front of an unreal top 4 D like the Hawks have? We don't know. So in this sense, its a push in the goalie matchup. I say toss the cup win out for Niemi; its past history - look at the present. Both Howard and Niemi are (1) young, (2) on loaded teams, (3) are capable of great play in stretches, and (4) are still prone to young player mishaps and meltdowns. This has to be the biggest variable in the series.
Both teams have great top-end talent up front and can really fill the net. Both have okay defense corps led by a legend (Lidstrom) and a real good veteran quarterback (Boyle). Both have the aforementioned goalie situation that can go anywhere. So we have to fully examine some key situational weapons in the series. In one sense, San Jose has a big weapon in Douglas Murray, a giant Swedish tank that is going to be charged with moving two other giant Swedes in Holmstrom and Franzen. If the refs "let 'em play" and keep on calling it old school (i.e., crease clearing is allowed), Murray will wreck these two great net-crashing screen artist that have been injury prone. In the same sense, "old school" ref work will allow Detroit to use that subtle interference all over the ice and get away with it (it makes my skin crawl, but they are so good at it!). Another weapon the Wings have had this year, which has honestly surprised me, is how well the depth has played. They look thin up front, but then get great play from guys like Cleary, Modano, Bertuzzi, Helm, and others. If Detroit's depth players are on, they win this series, as they win the matchup against a fairly thin Shark blue line. The reverse is true also, San Jose is so deep scoring-wise, while Detroit's defensive depth is questionable.
So with all of this waffling, where do I stand? Gotta ride the hunch and say that Niemi comes back strong enough a la Luongo, the San Jose depth on offense exposes the thin Detroit blueline (unless Lidstrom can somehow play 40 minutes a game! It may be possible with him, what a freak), and the Sharks prevail in what will certainly not  be a repeat of last year. This will be the best series of the second round, in my estimation.
Prediction: Sharks in 7


Eastern Conference

#3 Boston Bruins  v. #5 Tampa Bay Lightning
Earlier, I noted that the Lightning seem like a carbon-copy of Montreal last year. They are playing unreal defense and getting great buy-in, coaching, and timely goals. Its not that they are playing "over their heads", but they are peaking at the right time and overachieving. Its a good team, no doubt about it, but I think the end of the road comes at some point for teams like this, you can only play that suffocating defense for so long and NHL coaches are so good, they will find a way to beat the system (1-3-1 they use). The Bruins have the tools to win this series because they have veteran leaders to keep the team focused on what needs to be done and not get frustrated, Claude Julien is a good coach in his own right, and they are simply a better team all around (with the exception of top end goal scoring, which is not to be undervalued).
At the end of the day, can 35 year Martin St. Louis keep playing 25 minutes a game? Can 41-year old Roloson keep stealing the show? Can the system persist all playoff long (i.e., the 1995 Devils) and win it all? Maybe, but I think not. Boston has too much size up front and will pound the slower Lightning defenders into submission. Boston wins, with a little bit of a fight.
Prediction: Boston in 5

Western Conference

#2 San Jose Sharks  v. #5 Nashville Predators
So here we are again, the Sharks, poised to finally break through to where they should get on paper versus the upstart Predators. I feel this series will play out a lot like the Eastern final. Nashville, should they advance, is a pesky team with a great Goalie that will test San Jose's patience and will (ultimately, what I think will beat Vancouver). These are situations where San Jose would fold in the past. Is this year different? I don't know. But I think it is. As I mentioned in my first round predictions, I always believed that the "Thornton/Marleau/old guard Shark players can't get it done" was overrated and the real culprit was bad goaltending. Oddly enough, it looks like Niemi caught some "Nabakov-itis" late in round one. This is probably making Shark fans clinch their collective sphincters as we speak. I feel he overcomes it (well if he doesn't it will be Detroit here) and comes back good enough for San Jose to win. Notice what I said there, good enough to win. San Jose is so loaded with scoring, they simply need him to be good enough. Just like the Hawks were so good on D last year that he needed to just be good enough to get the hardware. I think he'll be good enough and I think that the balanced San Jose attack counter-acts the Suter/Weber shutdown pair, puts pressure on Nashville's depth and on Rinne, and eventually breaks through. San Jose finally makes the big dance, but not without some fight from Nashville. This series has the "super-close short series" feel where San Jose barely wins games just on the scoring depth.
Prediction: San Jose in 5


Boston vs. San Jose
Its the cup final and as you'd imagine, two great teams will go head to head. San Jose is bringing 3 lines deep of scoring ability, defensive discipline, and cup-winning goaltending, and a hunger to finally get the job done and win the cup after years of frustration and hearing about how they are all chokers. Boston is also bringing defensive discipline, bruising forwards, and a record setting goaltender that is having a career year and still remains under-appreciated. This will be a great final to me. Both crowds will be amazing (especially the underrated San Jose crowd) and both teams will lay it all out there for the glory to hoist the cup. 
So who gets it done? I have to fall back on my key belief about playoff hockey. It goes something like this:  Defense is a team concept and can be a trait (some players are always good defensively, like energy line players) AND a state (players that are not typically noted for defense will play it knowing they need to in order to win the Cup). In the end, if goaltending is relatively even, the deeper, better scoring team will win.
Again, that is just my two cents. Think about guys like Brett Hull selling out to win cups toward the end because they know the chances are limited and they want their legacy to be that of both a winner and a great player (there are many other examples here as well). Although Marleau, Thornton, and Heatley seem young; they really aren't. There is a lot of miles on those odometers. I think they will absolutely sell out to win this time...and that makes the Sharks scary good, and we all know it.
In this series, you could argue Thomas is better than Niemi, and I would accept that. But hes not that much better that it turns the series on its head. Let's not forget Thomas, for all his greatness this year, is no spring chicken and has been prone to meltdown games. Another advantage Boston has is Chara is better than any defender San Jose has. But overall, I think these D corps are a push. In the end, the speedy Sharks and their desire to finally get it done overcome a good run by the Bruins.
Prediction: San Jose in 6 games  (Conn Smythe winner: Joe Pavelski)

NOTE: Did you see what I did there...with the teal. Its called foreshadowing people!

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